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Business News/ News / World/  Pakistan’s Raheel Sharif visits Washington as army role grows

Pakistan’s Raheel Sharif visits Washington as army role grows

Raheel Sharif wants to make clear that it's the men in uniform, not suits, who call the shots, analysts say

A file photo of Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif. Photo: AFPPremium
A file photo of Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif. Photo: AFP

Islamabad/New Delhi: Raheel Sharif has been remarkably busy this year meeting powerful people to discuss Pakistan: the prime minister of Turkey, the US secretary of state and the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, to name a few. This week he’s spending five days in Washington, a trip that’s already included an audience with the CIA chief.

Sharif, though, isn’t Pakistan’s leader. That’s the other Sharif: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who’s not related. Raheel Sharif, a four-star general, is the nation’s chief of army staff. And, by all accounts, his ties with Nawaz Sharif are a bit rocky.

In a militant-plagued, nuclear-armed nation with a history of military coups and weak civilian leadership, the general’s visibility and public testiness with his prime minister has raised eyebrows. The tensions risk undermining Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to lure investment and put the economy on a path to sustainable growth.

At the least, analysts say, Raheel Sharif wants to make clear that it’s the men in uniform, not suits, who call the shots.

“They are just pushing, scaring the government to perform," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political analyst who formerly taught at Columbia University in New York. “The military doesn’t want to assume power directly because that has lot of problems. The military wants a civilian face in front, and Nawaz Sharif has agreed to be that civilian face."

Kerry, Carter

Raheel Sharif arrived in Washington on Sunday night for a five-day visit that comes less than a month after Nawaz Sharif met President Barack Obama in the White House. In addition to CIA director John Brennan, General Sharif is scheduled to meet American officials including defense secretary Ashton Carter and secretary of state John Kerry.

Pakistan’s military has ruled the Muslim-majority country for more than half of its 68 years of existence, and has always held out-sized influence on issues related to security and foreign affairs.

But now “the army has been taking much greater control and interest beyond foreign policy," said Ahmed Rashid, an analyst who’s written several books about Pakistan and the region.

Tensions rising

Tensions between the military and government were evident last week, when a statement from General Sharif’s media office on its counterterrorism strikes that began last year “underlined the need for matching/complementary governance initiatives for long-term gains of operation and enduring peace across the country." The accusation was clear — the military is doing its job but the civilian leadership isn’t.

The prime minister’s government shot back the next night, saying that “all institutions have to play their role while remaining within the ambit of the constitution." Mushahid Ullah Khan, a spokesman for Nawaz Sharif’s ruling party, declined to comment on Raheel Sharif.

A national survey released last month showed that while Nawaz Sharif had the top approval rating of any leader in Pakistan at 75%, his top general was third and far more people scored him at the highest level of trustworthiness. Ratings for the armed forces as an institution were above any other, including the courts, political parties or national assembly, according to the survey by the Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Transparency, an independent research group.

Covered in medals

Anecdotal evidence on the ground suggests that General Sharif’s popularity has continued to rise since the survey was conducted in June.

The military’s media wing has aired promotional videos on domestic television and made regular use of social media to spread the images and words of the general, a 59-year-old man with a thick mustache and a chest covered with medals when he’s in formal military dress.

“The magic lies in image management," said Ayesha Siddiqa, a defense analyst in Islamabad and author of “Military Inc.," a book that examined the military’s business interests. “If you see politicians, their reputation has come down to zero, and the comparatively good image you have is Raheel Sharif."

Pakistan’s military ideally would want a national government of technocrats and loyalists, Siddiqa said. The army wins either way by keeping the government on edge: Rumors of an intervention give it more sway over elected leaders, while resisting the urge to grab power outright garners praise for respecting democracy.

Islamabad mosque

Signs and billboards emblazoned with the general’s visage have sprung up around Karachi, the financial capital that has seen violence ebb over the past year. Typical messages include: “We are with you" and “Thank you for saving Karachi, Raheel Sharif!"

Saleem Memon, an official at the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said his group hung a banner praising the general because “we are grateful to him and the army. The civilian government did play a role but they were blind when there was complete lawlessness in Karachi."

On the outskirts of Islamabad, property dealer Mohammad Safdar Khokhar is building a mosque with an unmistakable namesake: the Masjid General Raheel Sharif.

The prime minister is a good man, Khokhar said, “but everybody knows that if generals step back, politicians can’t do anything." Bloomberg

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Updated: 17 Nov 2015, 02:31 PM IST
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